The Board’s Role
Reams of paper are used writing about the role of nonprofit Boards and individual Board members. Most articles focus on the eight, ten or twelve responsibilities of high functioning Boards. The list usually includes: setting the direction of the organization, assuring that adequate planning is undertaken on a responsible schedule, a budget is written annually, and that there are adequate resources to fund the plan.
No one would disagree with the statement – “it’s the Board’s role to determine why an organization exists, the benefit it will provide to society and the plan for implementing that benefit.” One of the most fundamental responsibilities of a Board is to assure that everyone working in an organization, the stakeholders and clients all understand the reasons this organization exists, and what it strives to achieve.
Unfortunately while the role is clear, the ongoing nature of the process is often confusing. Establishing the agenda, determining the mission, and casting the vision are often framed as activities the Board does once, with actions to be completed, and not ongoing conversations. It’s a cliché to say we work in a fast changing business environment, and it’s true the world around us is changing at an accelerating pace. Organizations are often asked to achieve seemingly contradictory agendas. Foster discipline and consistent results by measuring against an annual plan. This seems reasonable, yet how is new information accessed fostering nimble thinking?
Boards must reframe their roles. The requirement today is to be leaders of two seemingly opposite agendas. How do I lead, as a Board member, for discipline, consistency and dependable organizational results, while simultaneously challenging my fellow Trustees and staff to think nimbly about the environment in which this organization operates? This challenge is sometimes described as either or, when it needs to be both. Boards must continue to foster sound planning and fiscal processes which results in organizational discipline, and doable strategic and operational plans. Sound plans do not limit our opportunities to collect new intelligence or integrate the results of continuous environmental scanning. Successful organizations learn to foster these two contradictory perspectives, simultaneously operating with on plan, while incorporating new information.
More Questions, Fewer Reports
Each Board member represents a trove of information and experience which is external to the day-to-day operations of the nonprofit organization. Rather than seeing each Board member as an individual knowledge contributor, they are often viewed as vessels to fill with what they need to know about the nonprofit. How can the information flow into the nonprofit, rather than only out?
What would we learn if meetings were conversations rather than reports? Are agendas more interesting with more question marks and fewer periods? Would that task force, committee or Board meeting outcome differ if there were more questions posed and fewer reports made? Ask the Board members: What is the most surprising event at your office in the last 30 days? What did you learn on your trip to India (or China or Russia or New Jersey)? Do your company’s customers have new expectations or service requirements? What is making a positive (or negative) difference in your business partnerships and strategic alliances? Attended any great training sessions, profession meetings or investment seminars? When do you do planning at your office, how and who participates? Seeing any new trends in employee benefits, travel, or contracting for goods and services? Read any books that rocked your world? Discovered any new tips on how to be a better leader, or manager? Each Board member is a roving ambassador, spreading the good word about the nonprofit’s work, and collecting information that they may, or may not, realize is valuable to the future of that nonprofit.
Connect the Dots
The follow-up to each of these questions is “How do you see that fact, idea, insight, experience impacting the goals, clients, outcomes, future of this organization?” Opening the dialog not only brings fresh perspective on how the world is changing outside the doors of your institution, it also challenges your Board members to think critically about this organization’s challenges. Pursuing questions and focused discussion over time develops new awareness in both Board and staff to trends that may accelerate, change or impact your plan. The more engaging dialog is pursued, the more skill a Board and staff develop in fostering meaningful collaborative thinking. Short-term it may challenge the boundaries of your plan, long-term it offers incalculable benefits fostering early awareness of trends, while engaging Board members in new and exciting conversations.